Imagine that when you walked in here this evening, you discovered that everybody in the room looked almost exactly the same: ageless, raceless, generically good-looking … That is the kind of creepy transformation that is taking over cities, only it applies to buildings, not people.

~ Justin Davidson

Our hotel was in one of the three-story buildings that surrounded the plaza on three sides. The fourth faced the water and was where the ferry docked. Each building had a cafe and store on the first floor and rooms above. Every evening the cafes would bring tables out into the plaza until the whole place was full. The tourists and some locals would hang out there, eat and drink in the cool night air. It seemed that everywhere we went in Europe, there was a plaza where people congregated and spent time.

In the Middle East, the seaside towns I visited had a promenade on the corniche (road) along the seawall facing the sea. In the evenings, families and individuals would walk the corniche, catching the cool breeze and stopping to chat with friends or grab a drink or food. Young people hung out and walked in groups, mixing sexes more than allowable during the day. It was a time and place to see friends, catch up on the news and gossip, and maintain the community.

I suppose we in the U.S. must not have such an urge to get out and visit; maybe we have too much TV and Facebook, and maybe we just don’t want to spend time with our neighbors. However, my experience is that given the opportunity, people will gather and visit and hang out together.

Our neighborhood has had a block party every summer for at least thirty years. We usually have a potluck meal and square dancing, and the turnout is always pretty good — around 80 people. It doesn’t hurt that we have a local craft brewery in the neighborhood that provides free beer, but even in the old days we would all chip in to buy a keg. There will be a conglomeration of long-term residents, old folks, new people, well-behaved dogs, college students and kids riding various contraptions on the closed street. Mostly, though, people just visit. It helps our neighborhood be a community, not just a place.

At other times, we see neighbors on the street and in their yards, certainly more frequently when the weather is warm, but we share snow shoveling and car window scraping in the winter. For a while, when there were several families with teens, there was a Friday night gathering on one of the corners. They were sometimes loud and rambunctious, but if they were too loud or too late, some parent or adult would quiet them down. It was a part of their community, their turf.

I don’t know if the mall food court serves the function of the plaza or corniche for today’s kids, but malls are disappearing and not every community has one nearby. In some places, it is still popular to cruise in your car at night down the boulevard, stopping to visit, get food and drink, and maybe switch out riders, ala American Graffiti. However, I think that now we mostly use our cars to get away, rather than get together.

While at Oklahoma University in the ’60’s, several of us engineers carpooled up to Saint Louis for some meeting. It was my first trip to a big city or to “the East”, and we arrived at night. Somewhat lost, we pulled off the highway into a brownstone neighborhood to get our bearings. It was like the old movies of Brooklyn or the Bronx, but these were black neighborhoods. Stoops were filled with black families, and groups of black teens massed at street corners, hanging out and fooling around. We felt pretty obvious in our car full of white Okies, and decided not to ask for directions, but keep moving.

Unlike the old European cities, our U.S. cities don’t seem to have central gathering points, and it seems our smaller towns are slowly losing theirs. Attempts are made to ‘revive’ old-town Main Streets, but usually parking takes priority over pedestrian access. Some places have successfully created pedestrian malls on their main street, and that has benefited both residents and tourists.

My town, Golden, has successfully added more residential opportunities in our downtown area, and that has generated more traffic, both vehicle and pedestrian, sparking a revival of restaurants, cafes and bars. We also get lots of tourists, and the crowds downtown can sometimes keep the locals away. But we do manage, because we have an image of ourselves as a community.

We take some ownership in our town. We know people, we can nod or visit with people we encounter, even the scruffy looking guy that hangs out on the corner until the bar opens. We cross paths with old people, couples, college students and school kids. Our buildings have character, our store fronts are interesting to the casual observation or serious shopper, and the scale of the structures and sidewalks makes wandering through downtown pleasant. Justin Davidson says, “Buildings can be like people. Their faces broadcast their experience.”

I think the secret to a successful community is to be both comfortable and interesting. The setting needs character, and the characters need their place. I feel lucky that we have both where I live.

According to Lloyd Alter, “At the neighborhood scale, it is all about parks and connections and promoting independence. Or as we have often said, the city is your living room.”

Additional reading:

Justin Davidson, Why Glass towers are bad for city life – And what we need instead, TEDTalks, March 2017

Lloyd Alter, How to Design a Vertical City for Kids, TreeHugger, June 2, 2017


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